Alan Mak is PPS to Greg Clark and is MP for Havant. His Centre for Policy Studies report, Powerful Patients, Paperless Systems: How new technology can renew the NHS, is published today.
It was a Conservative Health Minister, Henry Willink, who first set out a blueprint for a universal, free, health service. “Whatever your income, if you want to use the service […] there’ll be no charge for treatment,” he said on Pathé News in July 1944, after his announcement of a White Paper calling for the creation of a National Health Service.
Following Labour’s 1945 general election victory it then fell to Clement Attlee’s Government to take the NHS idea forward in Parliament. But Conservatives backed its key principles then and have supported them ever since. And just four years after its creation, a new Conservative Government under Winston Churchill took over the then fledgling NHS and nurtured it for the next 13 years. Indeed, for over 40 of the NHS’ 70 years, it has been under the care of Conservative ministers.
Conservatives have a long and proud record of investing in the NHS, and recently the Prime Minister committed to providing a long-term funding settlement for its future. This is on top of record levels of funding since 2010, including increases in training places for doctors and nurses, and the biggest capital investment programme for over a decade. But extra funding alone won’t secure the NHS’ future. To improve productivity and put more power into the hands of patients, Conservatives must ensure that the NHS seizes the opportunities presented by new technologies too.
Today, we are witnessing the unprecedented fusion of new technologies that blur the traditional boundaries between the physical, digital and biological spheres – a new Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). Breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence (AI), Big Data, robotics, the Internet of Things, 3D printing, personalised medicines and nanotechnology are already transforming many aspects of our economy and society. The NHS shouldn’t be left behind. Its 70th anniversary this July is an important opportunity to examine how we can give patients the latest information about their health at their fingertips – from personal test results to reviews of their local hospital – so they can make more informed choices and exert greater control over their treatment.
The argument I make in my new report, published today by the Centre for Policy Studies and launched by Jeremy Hunt, is that by harnessing the new technologies of the 4IR we can put patients at the heart of a reformed, digital-first NHS. As Jeremy writes in his foreword to my report: “new technology is transforming healthcare, with medical innovations set to transform humanity in the next 25 years in the same way as the Internet has done in the last 25”. As personalised medicines, diagnosis by AI, and surgery assisted by augmented & virtual reality create a revolution in healthcare, we Conservatives have a duty to prepare the NHS for radical technological change, and an electoral opportunity to strengthen our Party’s standing on the NHS by being the patients’ champion. This would counter the worrying (and incorrect) narrative that’s emerged in recent years in which our political opponents have, at times, succeeded in painting us as uncaring about the NHS. They cite figures such as the 2017 general election Ashcroft Exit Poll in which 33 per cent of Labour voters named the NHS as their most important issue, whereas amongst Conservative voters, health wasn’t even in the top five.
Work to build an NHS fit for the future has, in fact, already begun. Last year, the Next Steps on the NHS Five Year Forward View was published, which set out plans to make it easier for patients to access urgent care online, simplify online appointment booking, make patients’ medical information available to clinicians, and increase the use of apps to help people manage their own health. This tech upgrade is starting to undo the damage done by New Labour’s disastrous IT projects which left the NHS with a toxic legacy of outdated equipment. Some of the statistics are eye-watering. For instance, NHS Trusts account for over 10 per cent of all pagers in circulation worldwide, with more than 100,000 still in use across hospitals; the NHS is the largest consumer of fax machines worldwide; and of the 1.5 million connected devices across NHS England, about 70,000 run Windows XP.
By ensuring that the NHS puts digital systems in place to take advantage of new 4IR technologies we can improve patient outcomes and potentially save the NHS billions of pounds. For example, £200million is spent just on printing for the 120million outpatient appointments that take place every year – and that’s without the cost of postage.
But Government digitisation projects are a delicate balancing act. No Government IT project should be pushed down from the top. Instead, the NHS and the Department of Health & Social Care need to work with NHS Trusts, CCGs, partners and suppliers to drive a fundamental cultural shift in behaviour. All NHS managers and leaders need to embrace an innovation culture focused on digital, and drive change at local level. This devolved approach is far more consistent with Conservative principles than “big bang” top down impositions of change.
As I set out in my report, my challenge to the NHS is to move all GP surgeries and hospitals from being paper-first to digital-first organisations over the next 10 years. By 2028, all interactions within the NHS should be digitally driven. Paper, fax machines, pagers and Windows XP must become a thing of the past.
Digital records and patient interactions are the building blocks for the future of the NHS. From those foundations, a flourishing eco-system of apps can create a patient-focused and ultra-convenient health service where patients can book appointments through an app, follow their progress through the system as easily as tracking a parcel, automatically order repeat prescriptions, and get instant medical advice. The impact of a fully digital NHS shouldn’t be underestimated: better, digitally-based planning could free-up hospital beds in winter, flexible appointments will avoid expensive cancellations, while better health advice will ease pressure on local GPs.
Whilst Labour often leads on health issues in current polls, Conservatives can move ahead in the future by leading a radical transformation of the NHS into a digital-first service. By giving patients information about their health at their fingertips, we put them in the driving seat – the same position they are already used to as citizens and consumers in other aspects of their lives. And by successfully deploying new technologies into the NHS – in stark contrast to the IT failures of the New Labour era – we ensure that the NHS is ready for the next 70 years by fully embracing the digital revolution.